The Kin-Der-Kids, October 31, 1906(?), panel 1. Drawn by Lyonel Feininger.
There's a conversation in certain comics-cognoscenti circles about how much better the coloring technology used on turn-of-the-century Sunday pages -- the very earliest comics -- sets a standard that nothing since has been able to live up to. I tend to agree, for the most part. Certainly the early broadsheets have a diversity of tones which was unavailable to comics artists between the 1940s and 1970s, and the visual punch of litho-screened dot matrices finds no real equal in modern computer colors. But I also tend to think that the reason old newspaper colors look so good is because the artists knew how to use them.
"The whole (printing process) must be conducted like an orchestra. Only this way can you achieve the magic integration of the hues and their values with the rich complementing function of shades, textures and blots. Without this integration, your work will always remain just a contour-drawing to which color has been added."
That's Lyonel Feininger on his approach to color, as quoted in a Comic Art piece by Thierry Smolderen. Hell of a quote, something every comics artist should read and absorb. Of course, the best and most conscientious cartoonists have always had to do with the way their work was colored, from midcentury superhero artists like Steranko and Starlin who amplified their pages with their own tones to modern innovators like Frank Santoro, who places the color in his panel grids before drawing a line. But in the days of the Sunday page there was no such thing as a "colorist" -- there was only the processing plant, and it fell to the artist to create specifications for how his work was to colored. These "color guides" ranged from broad minimalist jobs (Roy Crane's) to sensitive masterpieces (Hal Foster's). Regardless of their varying levels of attention to detail, though, they focused the artists' attention on how their work would take color, and just as importantly, how the final product would look in print.
Feininger's work stayed true to his credo of conductor-like attention to the way color impacted his art. His panels are a display of the cartoonist's exuberance mingling with the fine artist's restraint, of the push and pull between the two. Feininger began his 46-page career in comics with pages that exploded with the crudity of early comics -- gooey splats of red blood set into bright blue seas and saffron skies. He ended it with a run of strips colored entirely in a shade of orangey-beige that has much more to do with the modern art of the 1910s and '20s than with anything going on in comics at the time. This panel catches him in between the two extremes. An expressive palette of earth tones has replaced the garish primary colors, but their use is still pure cartoon -- flat stretches of meaty hue spreading over vast areas of space with only a few spare lines to add dimensionality. Feininger's knowledge of the effects of print on his art is apparent; here his scratchy penwork is held back, leaving the dot screens' roughness to imbue the panel with most of its craggy texture. This is brave cartooning, trusting a great deal of its liveliness to mechanical process, showcasing the illusion of detail over the real thing, and Feininger finds an elegant brutality in the imprecision of the muddy, gritty, splattery sheets of color that sprawl across his angular composition.
Given Feininger's journey from cartoonist to high-art painter, it's difficult not to look at his comics from a fine-arts perspective. This panel, with its open space and monumental edifices, prefigures such cartoon minimalists as Alex Toth and Jesse Marsh -- men who also trusted large areas of their art to the miracle of dot-screen printing. But it also puts on full display the roots early cartoon has back into the fine art of the late 1800s. Feininger's loose, spindly inking and jagged, abrupt shapes are more the product of German Expressionism than anything else; while the attention paid to the tactile rock surfaces, the expanse of sea and sky, and the effect of screen-printing's lux perpetua lighting effects on all of them are worthy of Impressionist masters like Monet, or even the dappled glow of pointillism. And then the eye moves to the tiny, vigorously cartooned human shapes in the bottom corner and the looming battlement windows at the top, and it all feeds back from academia and into the picture, the representation of things happening -- into pure comics. That house on the hill, carved into form out of unyielding rock, is a a perfect symbol for Feininger's art; hard-won control of chaos blending into the beauty of a sheer force that no human hands could ever produce.